WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's push for healthcare reform gathered steam on Thursday as a Senate panel scheduled a key vote and Democrats in the House of Representatives moved closer to hatching a bill.
The Senate Finance Committee set a vote for Tuesday on its healthcare plan after budget analysts gave the bill a rosy report card, estimating it would meet Obama's goal of reducing the budget deficit over 10 years.
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office put the total cost at $829 billion, below Obama's $900 billion goal, in a report on Wednesday that cleared the way for likely committee passage and an eventual floor debate in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
Republicans, concerned about the bill's costs and potential impact on the budget deficit, had demanded the estimate before they cast a vote on the proposal to dramatically transform the $2.5 trillion healthcare system.
Today we stand closer than ever to fulfilling that fundamental promise, the one for which we have fought for more than 60 years, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said of healthcare reform.
Obama's healthcare drive, his top domestic priority, is aimed at cutting costs, regulating insurers and expanding insurance coverage to millions of Americans without it.
Shares of large health insurers slumped on Thursday as the CBO report fueled investor fears that an overhaul seen as damaging to them was headed for approval.
Once approved by the committee, Reid and other Senate Democratic leaders will merge the Finance Committee bill with one passed by the Senate health panel earlier this year for Senate consideration.
Republicans said the merger would reshape the bill again. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell labeled the CBO report irrelevant.
What matters is that the final bill will cost about a trillion dollars, vastly expand the role of government in people's healthcare decisions, increase premiums and limit choice, he said.
PROGRESS IN HOUSE
In the House, leaders of the majority Democrats have been meeting for weeks to merge three pending bills into one for debate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said they were nearing their final decisions and would submit three options for a government-run public insurance plan to CBO for cost estimates.
All three House bills include a government-run insurance option, which Obama and liberal Democrats support as a way to inject competition into the insurance marketplace. Critics say the approach would hurt the private insurance industry.
There will be the votes for a public option. Now it's a question of which one, Pelosi, a strong supporter of the public option, told reporters.
One House version would be based on reimbursement rates paid to healthcare providers under Medicare, the government-run health plan for seniors, and the other two would rely on reimbursement rates negotiated with the providers.
I think that either one of them would pass on the floor, Pelosi said.
She also said Democrats were looking at the possibility of a windfall profits tax on insurance companies' income, adding she had asked House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles Rangel to examine the issue and report back to her.
Pelosi said insurance companies would get millions of new consumers, many subsidized by taxpayers, under the reforms and we think they can put more on the table.
The successful CBO score increases the likelihood that a reform bill will pass, Wells Fargo analyst Matt Perry said in a research note.
Shares of health insurer WellPoint Inc fell more than 7 percent, while UnitedHealth Group Inc, Aetna Inc and Humana dropped more than 4.5 percent, bucking a positive overall market.
Under the Senate Finance Committee bill, everyone would be required to have insurance but insurers would face stiff new regulations -- including a prohibition on rejecting coverage for people due to pre-existing medical conditions.
The Senate Finance bill also would impose a tax on higher-cost insurance plans, but does not include the government-run public insurance option opposed by the insurance industry.
(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro and Alistair Bell; Editing by Eric Beech)